A Very Curious Thing Is Happening in Austin, Texas

When the nation’s CEOs were being polled about state business climates earlier this year for Chief Executive’s annual rankings of the “Best and Worst States for Business,” there was a lot of concern about Austin, Texas, among the magazine’s conservative-leaning readership.

But in the last two elections there, a reassuring answer has come to worries about Austin’s progressive pull on Texas and how it might affect the state’s near-magnetic appeal to CEOs. Texas has finished No. 1 in the magazine’s poll for 17 straight years.

Now, the growing conviction inside the Lone Star State seems to be that its capital isn’t about to lead Texas in some sort of “blue rage” to the left -- a conclusion that’s backed up by none other than Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“Democrats made zero gains in the Texas House and congressional delegation, and Texas remained Republican” in last fall’s elections, Abbott noted to me in an interview I conducted with him for Chief Executive. “And the margins of victory in the closest districts were wider this time than the years before. Even with the massive voter turnout, [then-President Donald Trump] got a million more votes than four years earlier.”

Scott Brown affirmed progressives’ disappointment with that result. The iconic magazine of which he’s the publisher, Austin-based Texas Monthly, gave the Texas Democratic Party its annual “Bum Steer of the Year” award for 2020 because of how far short of expectations their candidates fell in November.

“The award is for Texans who fumbled the ball the worst during the previous year,” Brown told me when I interviewed him for Chief Executive. “It was disappointing that the results didn’t turn the state more purple.”

Then just last week, another electoral result that disappointed progressives came when 57 percent of Austin residents voted in favor of reinstating criminal penalties for camping in public spaces. The vote occurred nearly two years after Mayor Steve Adler and the city council canceled a more-than-20-year-old ordinance that had banned camping in public spaces – effectively keeping the homeless problem in check in Austin.

So what’s going on in Austin? And what does it have to do with the rest of Texas, and the rest of America?

Not surprisingly, Austin has always comprised the leading edge of progressive culture in one of the most conservative states in the union. As the state capital since 1846, Austin has built an expected left-leaning bureaucracy. As the home of the University of Texas since 1883, Austin also sports a typically liberal large population of college students.

More recently, Austin has emerged as a countercultural haven, partly based on the success of its South by Southwest festival, an annual gathering around films, digital media and music that began in 1987 (but wasn’t held last year and was only virtual this year). It is the birthplace of Dell Computer, and Austin has added tens of thousands of tech jobs over the decades as a major node for big facilities owned by California tech giants such as Apple and Google. And Austin has become a notable mecca for better-for-you foodies of all sorts, the not-surprising place where Whole Foods Markets, for instance, was conceived and is headquartered.

So, conservatives in Texas long have wrung their hands about Austin, its increasing turn to the left and the potential leaching of its influence outside its own confines. What’s added to their distress recently are small signs of such a growing blue tilt.

“The most frustrating thing about Austin is that everyone wants to come here for the low-regulation environment to operate their business, and the minimum tax requirement, but then want to fund all sorts of social-justice programs,” said Craig Chick, public-affairs director in Austin for Foley & Lardner, a large corporate-law firm based in Milwaukee.

Lately, this has been best illustrated by Austin’s growing population of homeless and city government’s accommodation of them. “In Austin,” Chick told me, “they’ve allowed the homeless people to camp virtually anywhere, like in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. That has significantly changed the landscape of the city of Austin.”

Further concerns have come recently with one news report after another about Silicon Valley denizens transferring headquarters or significant operations to Austin. They include Oracle, the $180-billion software company, as well as Elon Musk, who during Covid famously lost patience with the governing authorities around his Tesla plant in California – and also plans to build Tesla’s first pickup truck in Texas.

Steve Murphy beat this wave. The CEO of Epicore Software relocated from San Mateo, California, to Austin in 2018 with his wife, three children and the family dog. “Texas was thrifty in a good way and very pragmatic,” Murphy told me. “There are no potholes in the streets. The traffic lights work. People get things done. It was a big shock for my kids.”

But now, Murphy worries that he didn’t shut the door to Austin behind him. “A lot of native Texans have had enough” of California emigres, he acknowledged. “The price of housing in Austin has come pretty close to doubling in the last five years, and commutes have gotten bad – hour-long commutes each way.”

Yet along comes Abbott to reassure conservative Texans about the big picture of what’s going on in the city where he works every day. “I’ve been visiting with most of the business leaders moving to Austin,” the governor told me. “They’re true-blue conservatives or even libertarians. One reason they fled California is that they disdained the policies in California."

He expanded his purview to the rest of his state. “Just over two years ago, in the biggest election in Texas with a national profile, [Republican U.S. Senator] Ted Cruz ran against [Democrat] Beto O’Rourke [and defeated him.] My campaign did an exit poll; so did national media outlets, and they came up with the exact same result.

“The polls asked, ‘Have you moved to Texas from California or are you a native-born Texan?’ The results were eye-opening. Cruz received 57 percent of the votes of people who’d moved from California. So there may be some people moving from California to Texas who are liberal, but most are conservative.

“Texas is importing California conservatives, and California is importing Texas liberals. There’s more mathematical proof for that. In the 2020 elections, Democrats in the state and nationally banked on Texas turning blue because of all the people moving into Texas. [Democrats and allies] spent more than $100 million on Texas legislative races, thinking they could pick up the Texas House for redistricting. But all that money just evaporated.”

Another election result last week backs up his thinking: Republican candidates gathered about 62 percent of the votes in a primary election in the Texas Sixth District to replace deceased GOP Representative Ron Wright, leaving Wright’s widow and a party ally as the only two candidates still standing. The Republicans’ total was much higher in the district than the percentage won by Trump last November. Those results stung Democratic expectations of a reverse result.

Could Texas, even Austin, be harbingers of further red resistance across the country to any blue wave? The rest of Flyover Country will help determine the answer.